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Of Valour Sublime

For several days now, the military bands have been practising beyond my office window, perfecting their march down to Vijay Chowk and back, their pirouettes to the swaying notes of the bagpipes, their piercing evocative bugles. And today, even as I write, they will put all that practised perfection to display at the Beating of the Retreat ceremony. The hearts of the spectators will swell with patriotic pride as the last bands march away into the dusk to the notes of ‘sare jahan se accha’. A collective nostalgic awe will overpower the evening as the buglers, silhouetted against the setting sun on the heights of North and South blocks, sound the Last Post and then a surprised, spontaneous applause will break out as the lights come on, all at once, in the buildings on Raisina Hill.

It is an evening to celebrate the best of military traditions and I have the right book in my hands. Warrior Saints is a coffee-table book in the best sense of the term, with excellent pictures and well-researched text that brings out three centuries of Sikh military tradition. It goes back to the formation of the Khalsa in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the baptism of the double-edged dagger and the creation of a community of warrior-saints willing and able to use righteous force against injustice and oppression. It details the times of persecution of the Sikhs as the Mughal empire dissolved into chaos and Nadir Shah followed by Ahmad Shah Abdali plundered India. Using unconventional guerrilla tactics, the Sikhs harried the invading armies with great efficiency, drawing admiration even from Afghan battle chroniclers. One such, Qazi Nur Mohammed, wrote of the Sikh warriors: “If you cherish the desire to learn the art of war, face them on the battlefield. When they hold the mighty sword, they gallop from Hind to Sind. Nobody, however strong and wealthy, dare oppose them. If their swords strike a coat of mail, the coat itself becomes the enemy’s shroud. Each one of them is built like a rock. In grandeur, each one of them excels fifty men.” Their guerrilla tactics were known as dhai phat or two and a half strikes: first to engage the opponent and inflict maximum damage and second to disengage with minimum loss if the enemy gets the upper hand. Both are regarded as whole strikes in battle; to kill and be killed in considered only half a strike.

The book relates a conversation from these times between Nadir Shah and Zakariya Khan, the dreaded Governor of Lahore:

Nadir Shah: Who are these mischief-makers?

Zakariya Khan: They are a group of fakirs who visit their Guru’s tank (Amritsar) twice a year and bathing in it disappear.

Nadir Shah: Where do they live?

Zakariya Khan: Their houses are their saddle.

Nadir Shah: Take care; the day is not distant when these rebels will take possession of the country.

His words were to prove prophetic. Ranjit Singh, the young scion of the Sukerchekia misl or confederacy, united all the twelve misls under him and entered Lahore in 1799. In a few years, he had turned the Khalsa army into a sleek war machine, trained by Napoleonic generals, Italians, Americans and others. He held unchallenged sway from the Sutlej to the Khyber and the British could only make their move on Punjab after his death in 1839. Till this point in time, the book is richly strewn with miniatures, sketches, lithographs the best of which are by Soltykoff, a visiting Russian prince who managed to capture the fluid surge of the horses and the sway of the elephants of the Khalsa army in his drawings.

With the history of the Anglo-Sikh wars, the black and white photographs take over, all from the private collection of the authors Amandeep Singh Madra and Paramjit Singh, the earliest being those taken by John McCosh, a Bengal Army surgeon. The accompanying text describes the battles where the Sikhs fought valiantly only to be defeated not so much by the British but by the deception and treachery of their own generals. In 1849 when Punjab was finally annexed, the Sikh warriors lay down their arms with great reluctance. General Daly describes the event in his memoirs: “Many an old Sikh did I see with his long, white beard, betokening in his soldierly bearing and carriage the pride won in the days of Runjeet, lay his sword in the heap with as much tenderness as a mother would lay her child in its cradle, and then stepping back with tearful eyes bow his head in reverence, and pay it a last farewell. It was a sight which those who saw will never forget.”

A strong recruitment drive in the Punjab by the British saw the quick growth of the Sikh regiments and an 1860 photograph shows the 1st Sikh infantry in typical Victorian pose, resplendent in their flowing beards, an elderly Granthi in white seated amidst them. The exigencies of military service resulted in the beards later being tied under the chin or tucked into a net, which went on to become the formal mode of dress in the Sikh regiments. Evocative photographs and long quotations from British memoirs detail the engagement of various Sikh units during the Raj era, including in the famous Battle of Saragarhi in 1897, acknowledged as one of the most courageous actions in the annals of military history, where 21 soldiers of the 4th Sikh Battalion fought overwhelming numbers to the last man.

The recruitment of naive Sikh youth was further cranked up at the start of the First World War. As the text says: “In the appalling trenches of the Western and Turkish fronts, many thousands of young Sikh volunteers fought and laid down their lives, defending land unknown to them, against an enemy that was no threat to them, and all for an ally who occupied their own country.” The accompanying photographs starkly bring out the irony and tragedy of this predicament of these soldiers: Sikh despatch riders with their bicycles on the battlefield at Somme, Sikh soldiers marching in the desert during the Mesopotamia campaign with the Guru Granth Sahib carried at the head of the column, or playing tug-of-war in the deserts, or marching down Whitehall, or holding a prized Nazi flag when taking over Benghazi. During the Second World War, the tradition of Sikh valour in the battlefield carried on, most notably in the Burma campaign where they won as many as four Victoria Crosses and many battle honours. Action photos of a Sikh scout in the wild in the Arakan, or Sikh soldiers patrolling knee-deep in the swamps of Burma or charging a foxhole in the jungle speak for themselves. As General Messervy, GOC of the IV corps in Burma, wrote: “Finally, we that live on can never forget those comrades who in giving their lives gave so much that is good to the story of the Sikh regiment. No living glory can transcend that of their supreme sacrifice, may they rest in peace.”

Amen to that.


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